Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Harris Sheriff rep blames inmates for preventable, antibiotic-resistant infections in his jail

If you catch an antibiotic-resistant staph infection in the county jail and die, it's your fault for having a weak immune system, opined a Harris County Sheriff spokesman. Or at least that's what you'd take away from this item in the Houston Press, in which Meagan Flynn localized the story of Amanda Woog's new death-in-custody database to focus on deaths at the Harris County Jail. Her article included this remarkable assessment from Sheriff Ron Hickman's spokesman:
Asked about the high number of in-custody deaths in 2015, sheriff's office spokesman Ryan Sullivan said without examining the data closely it would be hard to tell, but he suggested that Harris County's drastic population increase could be a large contributing factor. According to county data, the county's population has grown 30 percent since 2000.

Otherwise, Sullivan said, "I can't account for why more criminals are pulling guns on officers on the street. ...If we look inside the detention center, no policy would ever prevent someone from dying from a natural illness. Inmates arrive here at a lot of various levels of medical condition. A lot of people have weakened immune systems, and they're therefore more susceptible to contracting diseases like MRSA.”
Let's break this down. First, "Harris County's drastic population increase" can't explain the difference. The jail population as of August 2005 was 9,097; in August 2015 it was 9,029. So they were caring for about the same number of people each day; deaths just went up. (The Sheriff's spokesman cites population growth from 2000, it should be mentioned, but Woog's data covers 2005-2015.)

Next, I don't think there's much evidence that "more criminals are pulling guns on officers on the street." While the recent targeted shootings of police officers runs counter to the trend, overall police officers are safer on the job today than they've been in many decades. Further, as NPR reported last fall, "the numbers suggest officers are also facing fewer attacks: The number of assaults on police has also fallen, though not as sharply" as deaths.

The comment that "no policy would ever prevent someone from dying from a natural illness" in the jail is clearly misguided and wrong. Natural illnesses are typically treatable and the jail has a duty to diligently attempt to "prevent someone from dying from a natural illness" while in their care. A Houston Chronicle investigation last year "identified at least 19 cases in which inmates died of illnesses that were either treatable or preventable, or in which delays in care, or staff misconduct, could have played a role in their deaths" since 2009.

To cite a few examples, another Chronicle story from last fall opened thusly: "Kenneth Beckett died in September 2009 of respiratory failure caused by the swine flu, which he appeared to have contracted in the county jail. Records show he and other Harris County inmates who died in jail had flu, sepsis and other treatable infections." What's more, "Other inmates complained of delays or inadequate care prior to their deaths, according to autopsies and family interviews," including one man who "died of peritonitis, an abdominal infection that can be treated with antibiotics." Those may be "natural" illnesses, but nobody should be dying of them in the jail. (Chron reporters have been all over this story.)

The most outlandish comment, though, was this oblivious assessment: "Inmates arrive here at a lot of various levels of medical condition. [Ed note: True enough.] A lot of people have weakened immune systems, and they're therefore more susceptible to contracting diseases like MRSA." Grits finds this self-justifying pablum unconscionable.

Let's be clear: MRSA is a dangerous antibiotic-resistant infection, transmission of which is entirely preventable. If inmates are contracting MRSA in the jail, it's because a) the Sheriff has failed in his management duties to identify and address emerging outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and b) inmates are either lying around their cells with open sores or contracting MRSA in the jail's unsanitary healthcare facilities. Casting animadversions on inmates' "weakened immune systems" misplaces blame and needlessly adds insult to injury.

Remarkably, the Sheriff's spokesman appeared not to understand the ways in which his comments displayed an abrogation of his agency's duty of care. Perhaps federal monitors or the Commission on Jail Standards, if not voters in November, will remind him down the line.


Anonymous said...

Has anyone assessed Harris County's jail intake procedures? Similar outbreaks in other correctional facilities (e.g. Philadelphia) have been controlled in part by subjecting all new inmates to a 24-48 hour observational period during which they're sequestered from the rest of the population. (In Philly at least, compliance with the issue--the policy was on the books but not strictly enforced).

Anonymous said...

Not that anyone on this blog is concerned with the employees health, but where is OSHA?
This same lack of concern for inmate health is mirrored in employees considerations at Harris County.

john said...

H. Co. and nearby jails aren't taking care of prisoners. They're just there to get paid, for taking attendance. If you need a special diet, or refuse to take the shots, meds, whatever; THEY'LL PHYSICALLY CARRY YOU AND FORCE YOU.
They don't CARE, as they have little oversight. Anyone inside had better have a bunch of folks outside, trying to track them and do something.
I've often wondered how H. Co. & Houston gets away with so many crooked and neglectful things. It may be, they give the State gov a big cut, of money raked in--dunno. It's pretty hard to believe, when you're first learning about it. Yet, it keeps getting worse, won't you admit? I.e., IT'S NO ACCIDENT. Their neglect and/or bullying appears systematic.
Human nature of tyrants, their willing henchmen, and anyone in charge taking advantage is an Earth problem. The hard part of their job is mostly the cover-up, when they're occasionally exposed.

Linda said...

Of course it's the inmates fault, it has nothing to do with the filth they live ib, poor ventilation, dirty, contaminated water, rotten food,,, Need I say more?

AWoog said...

@Anonymous 8:43 You're right to point out how this affects not only people incarcerated in the jail, but also those employed there. In general, working in jails and prisons is tough - it doesn't pay well, and studies have shown higher rates of PTSD and suicide among correctional officers. When California passed their sentencing reform ballot proposition a few years back, the correctional officers unions supported the plan. The voices of jail and prison workers are important to incorporate in reform efforts, and are too frequently left out.

Anonymous said...

True dat, AWoog. Not a good comparison with California, though, Cal Dep Corrections officers are some of the highest paid state employees on the west coast; Texas TDCJ Officers are the lowest paid in Texas.
Bottom line is, you get what you pay for.

Anonymous said...

Our county judicial system needs investigating.

The only people that should be in prison are those that murder or do harm to others.

Our county jails need proof before putting people in their jails, as in, innocent until proven guilty! Too many people have forgotten the 9th Commandment.

Anonymous said...

County jails don't put people in jail. Police arrest people who are suspected of crimes. Prosecuters charge them with crimes. Courts set bail and if they don't make bail they stay in jail. Then they either plead out or go to trial. The 9th commandment doesn't enter into it. If you're going to rant and rave and criticize, try to have at least a rudimentary grasp of the subject.